Birthday-Eve, Wesley, and Existentialism

Existentialism has been defined as, “the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the experiences of the individual.” I’m no Existentialist, as defined, but as a good Wesleyan I do believe that our philosophical and theological experiences must be evidenced in personal experience. There must be an eighteen-inch connection between our hearts and our heads. We are not “head-trip” Christians devoid of real world real-time experience with God. We are the people of empirically sensed “strangely warmed” hearts.

Tomorrow, October 23, is my 57th birthday, and that fact has me pondering my existence and calling. Life has never been a bed of roses for me, and it isn’t now. The events of this summer with losing in the episcopal election were daunting, yet I am fine. My back isn’t what it used to be as I have started the Christmas sprint in pottery making for all of the Columbia District Clergy, everyone in the UM Center, the Cabinet, and, of course, myriad family members. Conducting Charge Conferences back-to-back-to-back has been wonderful but exhausting, especially as I’m pondering potential pastoral moves as I discern the sense of those gathered for these important meetings. As Cabinet Secretary I have been busy creating and updating every piece of information to be used by all the District Superintendents in the appointment process and S/PPRC training. Heck, I’m tired from just dealing with the secular election process. There have been times where I have thought about doing harm to my telephone if I receive one more robo-call.

I am sure that many of you are going through much worse and your faith has been tested in far more serious ways, but on this birthday-eve I’m reflecting on my particular and peculiar life. My Mother was 40 and my Daddy was 41 when I was born. Mother wasn’t even sure she was pregnant, and didn’t go to the doctor until a month before my arrival. As a teenager who stressed out my older parents, I unfortunately overheard them upon occasion discussing my very existence. Several times I heard Daddy say to my Mother, “You didn’t want him,” and my mother replied, “If I didn’t want him, I wouldn’t have had him.” On one hand hearing this affirmed that I was a deliberate choice, but on the other hand the very discussion of my being born did not add to my sense of worth. Gosh, to keep my two much older brothers from doing me physical harm, my parents allowed them the privilege of naming me. Carlee wisely gave me the name “William,” after my Mother’s father. Ralph, on the other hand, gave me the name “Timothy,” after the name of the bear in the Dick and Jane books. I guess it could have been worse with something like “Puff” or “Spot.”

Now hear me out, I knew that was loved and appreciated, but I also often felt like a literal afterthought. One of the first serious books that ever helped me name this inner struggle between worth and worthlessness was Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. As a fifth-grader it came at a pivotal time in my life. Compounding existing issues concerning my self-worth was the fact that in the third grade I had encephalitis, an extremely dangerous illness. Statisticians say that 50% of its sufferers die and 80% have permanent brain damage. Whether the latter is true or not about me is up to you, but it did put me behind in school. Unfortunately I was also one of the youngest in my class with a birthday less than a week from the next grade’s cut-off. My current hearing loss is also a direct result of this awful illness.

As a youth, to compound things, either due to encephalitis or not, I also had a difficult time saying a “th” sound and earned the ignominious nickname of “Fim” in place of “Tim” because of it. I do know that much of my memory before the age of eight is simply blocked out due to the high fever that I had. If it weren’t for my dear Aunt Florence tutoring me in the fifth grade I would never have caught up in school. She also re-taught me how to tell time and tie my shoes, abilities evidently erased by my illness. There were plenty of deficiencies I ingeniously compensated for until her tutoring. However, before you begin to think that I wasn’t all that bright to begin with, some of you might need to be reminded of my Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa credentials. Sometimes we overdo in life to prove to others why we should have been born or continue to exist.

But, it was The Red Badge of Courage that first helped me turn the corner inside my own head about my unique personhood. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, was an anti-hero of sorts, a boy too young to have to face war and maiming. Henry Fleming was real. I could identify with him. He went through the stages of being scared, a deserting coward, cocksure in false bravado, gutsy under fire, and, in the end, he became a wise veteran who knew that the golden sunlight of peace was a better goal than a red badge of combat. He had earned his stripes, in a very real sense. As for me, I still run the gamut of all these stages. At least Henry Fleming remains a model of someone who survived tenuous times of doubt and fear and made it, despite all of his emotional and physical scars.

The biggest redemptive moment in my life occurred when I fully gave my life to Christ as a sophomore in high school. At that precipitous hinge-point of adolescence, between defining moments of either being cool or vilified, I heard and felt the Gospel. I recognized for the first time that God had always been with me, and had set me apart for joyful obedience. Beyond my feeble attempts to articulate it, I experienced a real relationship with Jesus that has sustained me ever since.

So here I am on my birthday-eve, thankful for the faithfulness of God through thick and thin, lean and abundant years, and all the vicissitudes of life. I can wake up in praise more than fear because God is God and that hope inspires another day of service from this inadequate, but more-than-conquering servant. Like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, I will head back onto the field of warring emotions and hope that it is valor more than duty that calls me, and the Gospel of Christ’s grace more than a desperate endeavor to justify my own existence that inspires me. I will, through Christ, wear the red badge of courage.

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I Miss My Mama

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One of the first serious books that I ever read was Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. As a fifth-grader it came at a pivotal time in my life. I had issues with my self-worth that were awful. In the third grade I had encephalitis, an extremely dangerous illness. Statisticians say that 50% of its sufferers die and 80% have permanent brain damage. Whether the latter is true or not is up to you, but it did put me behind in school. Unfortunately I was also one of the youngest in my class with a birthday less than a week from the next grade’s cut-off.

To compound things, either due to encephalitis or not, I also had a difficult time saying a “th” sound and earned the ignominious nickname of “Fim” because of it. I do know that much of my memory before the age of eight is simply blocked out due to the high fever that I had. If it weren’t for my dear Aunt Florence tutoring me in the fifth grade I would never have caught up in school. She also re-taught me how to tell time and tie my shoes, abilities evidently erased by my illness. There were plenty of deficiencies I ingeniously compensated for until her tutoring. However, before you begin to think that I wasn’t that bright to begin with, don’t forget the Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

But, it was The Red Badge of Courage that helped me turn the corner inside my own head. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, was an anti-hero of sorts, a lad too young to have to face war and maiming. Henry Fleming was real. I could identify with him. He went through the stages of being scared, a deserting coward, cocksure in false bravado, gutsy under fire, and in the end became a wise veteran who knew that the golden sunlight of peace was a better goal than a red badge of combat. He had earned his stripes, so to speak. As for me, I still run the gamut of all these stages. At least Henry Fleming remains a model of someone who makes it to the finish line.

So are Jesus, the Apostle Paul, and every other saint I can think of. The most common characteristic besides faith in all the saints is a set-apart life, a sense of vocation unmitigated by divided loyalties. Saints are ordinary people who dare to do what God says. Because that is so rare is the reason we call these special people “saints.” How many saints are still among us? I better not name names, but in my mind many of you qualify. More than anyone my Mother was my hero. Wow, did she love! She lived it. She helped people, legally adopted an mentally-challenged African-American man into our family. I cannot begin to name the ways that she championed the Golden Rule. I miss her so much. Maybe it’s because I have a birthday coming in a week or so, or because of what she sacrificed for me to even be born at age 39 and the gestational diabetes that turned into the real thing which changed her life forever and caused her to die far too young.

Who’s your inspirational saint, and do you emulate them? Do you ever watch ABC’s TV show, “Extreme Makeover:Home Edition”? It’s my Sunday Night inspiration for the week in terms of doing something good for deserving people. The stories of the recipient families are amazing and touching. I am amazed at how whole communities want to say “Thank you!” to the saints in their midst. I also like the ways that the marvelous gifts of the Design Team are matched so perfectly with the families’ needs is a joy to witness. It’s a show that reminds me of a little bit of heaven on earth: the good guys actually finish first! It’s a good reminder before facing another week where our reality too often resembles a less than stellar outcome. The Design Team members are heroes for putting others before self.

This is our saintly mission, too. This is our race to run with Jesus as player/coach and the Holy Spirit as dynamic energizing cheerleader. God wants us to make it to the finish line and hear those long-awaited words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”